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Time for euthanasia to be regulated

By David Swanton - posted Friday, 29 August 2014


In recent weeks, Australia's most outspoken voluntary euthanasia campaigner, Philip Nitschke, has been subjected to harsh criticism from some euthanasia supporters, including the ACT's Mary Porter and the chairman of beyondblue, Jeff Kennett.

Given that this criticism is based around actions concerning a recent case of 'rational suicide', an issue that has been raised before with barely any public criticism, I suspect these commentaries are part of a broader campaign to undermine Dr Nitschke, the director of Exit International.

It's hard not to be perplexed by the hypocrisy of this criticism. As people with public standing and substantial influence, why don't Ms Porter and Mr Kennett work to fix the voluntary euthanasia regulatory system, rather than complaining about Dr Nitschke operating in an unregulated environment? There are options the pair can explore.

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Does Dr Nitschke push the legal limits in the current environment? Yes. Are there risks that people who are depressed, not elderly or terminally ill might access information in the unregulated environment? Yes. But these risks are mitigated somewhat as Exit members are required to be either seriously ill, notionally older than 50, and not clinically depressed. However, exceptions are permitted, and I'm one such exception.

Since I was in my thirties, I have been actively supportive of the fundamental human right to choose what is right for one's own body. I'm not terminally ill and my mental state has never been questioned.

If I had committed suicide, should Dr Nitschke be blamed? No, as I have shown no outward signs of depression, Dr Nitschke is not my physician, and people of sound mind should be responsible for their own actions.

Rational suicide is not a new issue in Australia, but the level of public debate on the issue is immature. For three years, Lisette Nigot warned Dr Nitschke that she would take her life at 80 because she will have had enough by 80. A movie (Mademoiselle and the Doctor) documented her case.

Iris Flounders chose to take her life when her terminally ill husband, Don, took his life with Nembutal. Neither Iris or Lisette were terminally ill, nor were they depressed. In both cases, the women emphatically told Dr Nitschke, friends and relatives to mind their own business.

There was barely any adverse commentary in the press on these matters, although there were ructions in the pro-euthanasia community regarding Lisette Nigot's case, particularly around where the line ought to be drawn. Dr Nitschke was then understandably surprised and caught off guard in his response to media criticism when ambushed on the most recent case of rational suicide.

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We should note that while many people commit suicide, it is not illegal. It was not possible to dissuade these women from their suicides, and regrettably, this will sometimes be the case.

While legislative reform is the main objective of the state and territory-based Dying with Dignity organisations, it is also a desired objective of Exit International. Much of Dr Nitschke's time, however, is devoted to complementary activities, in particular research and providing information on end-of-life options to the elderly and terminally ill.

In pushing the boundaries of what is legally permissible, Dr Nitschke has not always endeared himself to some in the voluntary euthanasia movement. That's understandable (though it is always hoped that those working for voluntary euthanasia reform can work together).

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About the Author

David Swanton is an ethicist, PhD scientist and director of Ethical Rights. He is also ACT Chapter Coordinator for Exit International.

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